Story | Plot | Narrative | Novel | Book : Part 1 ‘Defining plot and story’

A story is not the same as a plot.
Narrative is neither a story nor a plot.
A novel is more than a story, a plot or a narrative.
A book is something completely different.

For these series of blogs I’m going to take these points and expand on them further. Today’s blog, Part 1, covers definitions for story and plot and explores some examples of their differences.

But first … why do we need to think of story and plot as entirely different things? What’s the point? We all know the difference, don’t we? Well, before I started writing seriously, I had an intuitive sense that, although they were intertwined, they meant something different but wasn’t able to articulate it clearly, especially as some of the experts in the field had differing opinions. So it’s only now, after having written a few books (and having read a few), and having thought carefully about it, that I’m able to see them as completely separate abstract concepts. Hopefully, by trying to clarify the difference, by teasing out a fuller picture, it will help you to approach your writing (and your reading) with different eyes.

Many people who have written about these things in the past have treated both plot and story as synonymous. Christopher Booker (see a previous blog entry here) wrote about seven archetypal stories (The Quest, Rebirth, Tragedy, Comedy etc) and uses the term ‘story’ throughout. Yet he still called his book the The Seven Basic Plots. My interpretation of this is that he perceives stories as specific instances of a more generic ‘basic plot’ but it is never very clear and there is a feeling of conflation between the two.

In Aspects of the Novel, E M Forster defines a story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’. He then defines a plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis on causality’. He is entirely wrong about story. But he is much closer on plot; it is about causality. Our first-port-of-call online (link) explains this reasoning in detail, and also covers what other writers have done to expand on the thinking.

Unfortunately, Forster also threw in the concept ‘narrative’ and confused things somewhat. So, ignore the narrative side and consider plot as being about ‘series of events’ and about ‘causality’ and we can arrive at a definition.

A plot can be defined as: a series of linked events behaving according to commonly-understood rules of cause-and-effect.

And what about story? The reason Forster got it so wrong is that a series of linked events is that it is merely that. Wikipedia continues the same line (link), calling a story a ‘report of connected events’. We can all think about linked or connected events: On a planet far, far away a rock fell off another rock and caused a nearby rock to ricochet away approximately ten centimetres. This isn’t a story. Possibly, it could be seen as a sub-component of a story, the opening perhaps, but in its entirety it is not a story. But according to the definition from Forster and others, it passes the test.

What they failed to see is the key rule, the one that is now drummed into students of writing everywhere: ‘story is character’. Perhaps he was born too early? I’ve failed to find out who wrote or said this first but it feels like scriptwriter’s advice. Whatever its provenance, it is absolutely true. There can only be a story where there is a character (or group of characters) and that character or group has to be suffering some imbalance and that story only truly ends when that imbalance is balanced. We have to understand and emphasise and care for that character or group. Otherwise, we don’t care. And it’s just a series of linked events.

An interesting book that inspired me in this, by somebody who was trying to distil some of Booker’s and others’ thoughts on the matter, is John Yorke’s Into the Woods. Yorke’s view on a story is as follows: ‘you’re going to encounter a setting, and in that place a series of events will occur – almost certainly to an individual’. The views in this blog, and the definition given below, are strongly influenced by this book and I would urge you to read it.

A story can be defined as: the journey (events and actions) a character (or group) takes from imbalance to balance.

So, now that we’ve defined story and plot, let’s examine some examples. Forster identifies two famous examples. First, Forster’s example of a story:

The king died and then the queen died.

And then Forster’s example of a plot:

The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

In the first example (the story) we can clearly see that, although we have a character and sense of imbalance, it gives no sense of journey or resolution of that imbalance. Arguably, having sneaked a look at the plot example, we could project a little of what we know about human nature (and the character arc of tragedy) and we could fill in the gaps. But it involves a lot of projection. So, it needs a little work. If I were going to expand on this example of story, applying the definitions I gave above, we would see something like this:

The queen, deeply in love with the king, sees him die and only finds peace through her own death.

It’s less snappy, isn’t it? But it’s more likely to pass muster as your elevator pitch than Forster’s example. You start to care more about about the character(s) and you feel satisfied at the resolution. Story is all about feeling satisfied as a reader.

And what about the refined example of a plot? Well, Forster’s example was pretty good so I’m not sure I can add much to it. It was a linked series of event and it demonstrated a sense of commonly-understood cause-and-effect. However, if I was going to make a somewhat inelegant attempt, the following might suffice:

The king suffers from an illness and dies. The queen discovers the king is dead. Due to her intense grief, she dies also.

There is causality and a series of linked events. At first glance, you could also intuitively recognise it as a story but what it misses entirely is clarity over who the character is we are sympathising with and whether the imbalance is resolved. It simply ends, like that pebble coming to rest on some distant planet. Why should we care?

Next time I’ll explore the concept of narrative (another abstract though more technical term) and how it relates to story and to plot.

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